Bird + plane = Possible disaster

It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s an accident waiting to happen. A study of 10 small Indiana airports by Purdue Univ. found that animals are easily getting onto runways and infield areas, increasing the likelihood of planes hitting them.

In January, this scenario received national attention when a plane piloted by commercial pilot and Purdue alumnus Charles “Sully” Sullenberger was hit by a flock of Canadian geese and forced to land in the Hudson River.

Gene Rhodes, a professor of forestry and natural resources, documented that animals got onto to airports through damaged fences or unfenced areas. Deer, coyote, and other animals were commonly spotted in dangerous places.

“Just about every pilot we talked to at these airports said that during a landing they’ve had to pull up to avoid hitting an animal on the runway,” Rhodes said. “With the size of planes using these airports, hitting a rabbit could flip a plane.”

Rhodes said there are thousands of small airports all over the country that don’t have the financial means to fence in their properties, endangering countless flights.

The study revealed that only four of the 10 airports had fences around the entire perimeter. He noted that many of the fences had maintenance problems — holes dug under fences, access through culverts, and gaps in fences — giving animals access to the fields.

One reason airports are animal magnets is that they are required to own the property surrounding the runway, and the land is often rented to farmers. The crops farmers plant attract animals looking for food.

“What you have planted affects what type of animals will be there,” Rhodes said. “Even if you have just certain grasses, you have small mammals that eat those, and they attract red-tailed hawks. A redtailed hawk can bring down a small plane as fast as anything.”

Travis DeVault, a field station and project leader with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services, said wildlife strikes have become more common in recent years. “Many of the most hazardous species are increasing in population. For example, about two-thirds of the largest bird species have shown population increases during the past 30 years,” DeVault said. “Also, air traffic continues to increase. More birds in combination with more flights leads to more bird strikes.” DeVault also states that today’s planes are quieter, therefore birds have less time to detect them and avoid being struck.

In his study, Rhodes suggests completely enclosing airport perimeters with partially buried fencing, which keeps animals from tunneling underneath. Frequent fence maintenance is also key.